The hike past Frog Lake Cliffs through Coon Canyon to the top of Basin Peak has just about everything you could want on a hike except a lake you can swim in. There are incredible mountain vistas, sparkling streams choked with wildflowers, fabulous craggy rock formations and an abundance of ancient trees. While not designated as a wilderness, once you get into Coon Canyon it sure feels like one.
There is one caveat to this hiking paradise: at 12 miles and just over 3,000 feet of climbing, it is not a Sunday stroll — unless your idea of how to spend a Sunday starts early in the morning and continues unabated for the rest of the day.
The hike begins at the top of Donner Summit. From Truckee, take the Boreal Exit off Interstate 80, turn right and drive to the end of the pavement. Here begins a dusty walk up the dirt road toward Castle Pass. At about a half mile, where a particularly glorious view of Castle Peak appears, the route leaves the road to the right and follows the Donner Lake Rim Trail. This winds gently up and down through forest and over rocky terrain showing off great trail-building skills until it meets the Warren Lake Trail where you turn left.
Now is when the first of two major climbs begins. It’s a several mile-long ascent through thick forest and mule’s ears to the edge of a massive ridge, which continues from Frog Lake Cliffs all the way to Basin Peak.
Here, a quick detour is in order to the top of Frog Lake Cliffs, where from the rocky precipice you look down on Frog Lake, which given its shape I feel should be named Peanut Lake. Whatever you call it, it’s gorgeous. In addition to the lake, the 360-degree views also show you that Basin Peak is still a long way off.
Don’t worry, it’s worth it. The hike drops down through a forest of hemlocks, crosses a few minor streams then descends farther into what for me is the highlight of this hike: Coon Canyon. High above sits the incredible craggy fortress of Castle Peak, which looks much more impressive from the north side than from the south and west sides, which can be seen from the freeway. Then the route follows a 3-mile jaunt across an enormous bowl with perhaps a dozen streams, magnificent trees and rock formations that rival anywhere else in the Sierra. It’s so pretty, you might almost fail to notice that you always seem to be going up steeply to climb out of a deep gully or dropping precipitously into the next one.
Another highlight of Coon Canyon is that it often contains all the seasons in one place. The deep gullies hold snow well into fall after a big winter. Even this year they still host bustling streams with lots of wildflowers. Meanwhile, on the open slopes, low-lying bushes show the bright red of fall as the dried mule’s ears flutter in the breeze.
Eventually, at the northern end of the bowl you reach a saddle and a trail junction. Take the left turn toward Devil’s Oven, but just follow it for a short distance before beginning your bushwhack up the ridge toward Basin Peak. It’s steep at first, but then becomes a gentle ascent through an open hemlock forest. Near the top it gets steep again — especially considering how long you have been hiking already. Take a pause to check out the late-blooming Sierra Primrose, then stay toward the left and shoot for the ridgeline. Once you reach the broad ridge, there is a trail to the top of the peak.
As you might expect, the view from Basin Peak is exceptional. To the south is Castle Peak and Round Valley. The Sierra Buttes can be seen to the northwest; spin slowly around in a circle and you can see about 50 miles in every direction. It was a windy place though, so we didn’t stay long. A trail heads down the ridgeline to the west with views of an enormous forest of young hemlocks to the north. At first the trail is steep and then it contours to the south and eventually drops down to meet the Pacific Crest Trail. Turn left and follow the PCT as it switchbacks through the trees to Round Valley, where you can impress yourself with your accomplishment by checking out Basin Peak high above.
Now with tired legs, you pass the Sierra Club’s Peter Grubb Hut and do your last ascent out of Round Valley to Castle Pass, where after starting down a steep descent you have a decision to make: take the PCT, which is probably about 1 mile longer, but on a lovely, shady trail or follow the dusty road back to your car. We were beat, we took the road. But even in our exhausted mental and physical state, we could still smile at the beauty of Coon Canyon and the views from Basin Peak.